THINK PINK! IT’S MAINE SHRIMP SEASON
I came to a screeching halt in front of the seafood counter. The fishmonger at my local Whole Foods carefully tipped out the last of his ravishingly pink treasure behind the sign that said “Native Maine shrimp. $3.99/pound” and stood back to admire his handiwork. Our conversation—equal parts, “They’ll all be gone by 2 o’clock this afternoon” and “I’ll take five pounds”—was immediate, simultaneous, and mutually beneficial.
You can, of course, find this crustacean at sushi bars, where it’s known as ama ebi (sweet shrimp), or at New England supermarkets and the backs of trucks parked alongside local roads. But if you live south of Boston or don’t have an inside track, availability is hit or miss.
Next year, I’ll get it together and buy a subscription to Port Clyde Fresh Catch. Operating along the lines of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), which is designed to directly support farmers, this CSF (Community Supported Fisheries) program was developed by the last scrappy little fleet between Portland and the Canadian border. A five-month subscription costs $150; individual monthly shares are $40. Even if you live far from a pick-up site, they ship sustainably harvested wild-caught shrimp, lobster, and fish anywhere in the United States.
Maine shrimp come from one of the most extraordinary bodies of water on the planet. The Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Cape Cod to Cape Sable, at the southern tip of Nova Scotia, is where you’ll find the Bay of Fundy, known for the highest tides in the world (the average: 55.8 feet) and dense fog banks that materialize at will, eliciting quick confabs (“Can you steer in low visibility?”) on many a racer/cruiser. My first experience in this sort of weather was about 20 years ago. I’m seated on the port side, relieved that we are not crossing a shipping lane.
The Gulf of Maine also boasts featureless expanses of cold, deep water. That water is what gives the American lobster, Homarus americanus, its characteristic oceanic tang, and it is what gives Maine (a.k.a. northern, or pink) shrimp, Pandalus borealis, its characteristic sweetness and succulence.
Maine shrimp take about 3½ years to mature as males, then they do a hermaphroditic shimmy before they migrate inshore to deposit their eggs. This year, the season, which began December 1, should last until April 15. The healthy stocks have a “good choice” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, so you can stifle that attack of the guilts. Personally, I plan on eating lots.
So what did I do with my haul?
Maine shrimp are itsy-bitsy critters—they run 30 to 50 per pound—and are soft-bodied, so although there is no need to devein, they are the very devil to peel when raw. That’s why I made Andrea Reusing’s salt and pepper shrimp with a big heap of them. The chef-owner of Lantern, in Chapel Hill, calls for medium shrimp, but her recipe worked brilliantly with the crustaceans at hand. Everyone at the dinner table was happy.
The next evening, I peeled the rest of the shrimp and sautéed them in olive oil with garlic, dry Sherry, and a spritz of lemon juice until the flesh turned rosy, opaque, and just firm to the touch. It took a couple of minutes.
I was inspired by Charlotte Jenkins, a chef from my part of the world, who wrote a charming, evocative book called Gullah Cuisine. For the photo below, I couldn’t help pairing the book with a papier maché depiction of Mary, who looks to be at wit’s end, and her sweet baby Jesus, by Mama Girl, a folk artist on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I like the fact that she Thinks Pink, too.
We ladled the shrimp over helpings of the creamy grits that had been working on a back burner. And for the first time, I realized that if I divided my time between Maine and Georgia, I could live near a fishing fleet and eat like this all the time.